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How Branden Carlson’s career-best performance sparked the Runnin’ Utes’ win

Utah Utes center Branden Carlson, wearing white, shoots over Sacramento State Hornets center Hugo Clarkin
Utah Utes center Branden Carlson (35) shoots over Sacramento State Hornets center Hugo Clarkin (32) at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Branden Carlson knocked down a 3-pointer, part of his career-high 21-points, then waved his arms, urging the Huntsman Center crowd to get loud as he ran back down the court.

That crowd had plenty to cheer about on Saturday as Utah defeated Sacramento State 89-56 in a win that reflected the identity that new head coach Craig Smith is trying to instill in the program — defense and rebounding.

Carlson was 8-for-10 from the floor, made two 3-pointers and went 3-for-5 from the free-throw stripe. He added two blocks, two assists and a rebound.

“Branden Carlson was outstanding. He really got us out to a great start,” Smith said.

After a slow start — Utah didn’t get on the board until almost 2:30 into the game — Utah got going, embarking on a 13-2 run.

Carlson scored eight of Utah’s first 11 points, including a dunk after playing some good defense and running the floor early on in the contest.

The Utes made an effort to feed Carlson down low to start the game, and it paid off, as those first eight points all came on either layups or dunks.

Carlson displayed the range of his offensive game, showing an ability to post up and get buckets, run in transition and shoot 3-pointers.

“Branden is such a talented guy. We’ve been so happy as a staff with what he’s been able to do and the growth in his game all the way around,” Smith said.

“Tonight, you didn’t see it on the boards, but he’s going to do well in that area. His decision-making, ball handling, his ability to stretch the floor — he’s really improved in those areas.”

Carlson said he’s been working on his 3-point shot this offseason.

“These coaches have a lot of confidence in me in being able to do that. It’s something that I’ve been working on a lot, it’s a big part of my game,” he said.

Smith wasn’t concerned that Carlson only had one rebound, noting that he had nine rebounds in Utah’s season-opening win against Abilene Christian.

“I thought he rebounded it very, very well on Tuesday in a lot of traffic, and he’s been doing it in practice,” Smith said.

“I think it’s just one of those things, the way the ball bounces a little bit, too.”

In his first game for the Utes season after receiving an NCAA waiver that cleared the way for him to return to Utah, Both Gach scored 11 points off the bench, the only Ute besides Carlson to score in double figures.

Gach played 19 minutes in his return and went 4-of-6 from the field. He added three assists and two rebounds and knocked down a 3-pointer, smiling after making it.

“Having Both back, what a great spark he had for us,” Smith said.

Gach entered with 16:30 in the first half and, on his first touch, assisted Carlson on an alley-oop.

Marco Anthony had a unique stat line. The 6-foot-5 guard scored six points on 1-of-6 shooting, but grabbed 16 rebounds, dished out six assists, blocked three shots and had a steal.

Anthony was the first Ute to grab 15 or more rebounds since Kyle Kuzma did it in 2016.

“He’s such a great, elite defensive player for us,” Smith said.

Utah followed its 55-rebound performance in the season-opening win over ACU by outrebounding Sacramento State 58-29.

Utah held the Hornets to 20-of-64 (31%) shooting from the field and just 4-of-22 (18%) from 3-point range.

Sacramento State cut the Utes’ lead to as little as six points with 2:48 remaining in the first half. The Hornets were full-court pressuring and trapping Utah, forcing the Utes to speed up.

Utah started missing shots, and, beginning around the 9-minute mark, went without a field goal for nearly three minutes.

But the Utes responded by ending the first half on a 9-0 run, led by David Jenkins Jr., who scored four points, and Carlson, who scored three.

The Utes also ratcheted up the defensive intensity, holding the Hornets scoreless for the last 2:48 of the half, and Utah went into the locker room at halftime with a 45-30 lead.

The Utes carried that momentum into the second half, outscoring the Hornets 16-6 in the first five minutes and stretching their lead to 61-36.

Sacramento State never got closer than 16 in the second half.

Bryce Fowler led Sacramento State with 12 points.

Sacramento State is coached by Brandon Laird, who is serving as the interim head coach after 14-year head coach Brian Katz, who was the winningest head coach in the Hornets’ Division I history, retired just a week before the season started due to health issues.